Christchurch: off life support and beating again

It is just 1826 days since the Big One that threatened to break a community and an economy. Yet the businesses and people of the New Zealand city of Christchurch and the Canterbury region have put back many of the pieces of their home and work lives.

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" The businesses and people of Christchurch and Canterbury have put back many of the pieces of their lives and are taking the opportunity to create a 21st century city." 
Tim Murphy, journalist & former editor of the NZ Herald

And they are taking the opportunity to create a 21st century city.

Much - and some argue too much - remains to be done but a $NZ40 billion rebuild - comprising roughly $NZ16 billion each for residential and commercial construction and $NZ7 billion for infrastructure - is approximately half-way through.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, for one, remains sceptical about calling this year the mid-way point.

“I think when you start talking about 'are we half way through' it becomes slightly academic, depending on your estimate of the damage in the first place" he told the Stuff website.

The recovery, the largest economic project New Zealand has faced, is likely to continue until 2020.

ANZ's Regional Trends report shows economic activity in Canterbury went through the roof straight after the earthquake and has only recently receded below the national average.

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Source: ANZ

Understandably, recovery projects have spurred job growth with Canterbury's unemployment rate to December 2015 sitting at 3.9 per cent, compared with a New Zealand-wide figure of 5.3 per cent.

New businesses continue to open in the city regularly. As an example, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority says 800 cafes and restaurants are now open, almost as many as before the devastation.

But much of the commercial reconstruction in the central city – notable for its extensive patchwork of empty lots and derelict 'heart' in the form of the broken Christ Church Cathedral – is on hold, awaiting major anchor projects such as the mooted Convention Centre.

The building blocks are in place, however. The Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Repair Team is 97 per cent finished its 'horizontal infrastructure repairs' in the central city, clearing the way for the city's 'vertical rebuild'.

Christchurch-wide, building consents for non-residential work for the month of August give an indication of the pace of construction. Last year they totalled $NZ384.4 million – and that was 57 per cent of New Zealand's total. A year earlier the figure was $NZ115.4 million and in August 2013 just $51.2 million.

Private insurers have paid out a total of $NZ16.7 billion for claims to the end of 2015 – about $NZ9 billion for commercial, including $NZ1 billion for business interruption.

The commercial figure represents about 90 per cent of commercial claims, with a $NZ635 million settlement with Christchurch City Council about to be added.

Tim Grafton, the Insurance Council chief executive, says insurers are “continuing to make a major contribution to Canterbury and the New Zealand economy and are committed to settling the remaining claims as quickly as possible".

The public Earthquake Commission has paid out $NZ9 billion, taking the total to above $NZ25 billion. Tourism, a $NZ3.7 billion a year industry for Canterbury, is still struggling.

Christchurch is the gateway to the famed tourist destinations of the South Island and with accommodation, retail, transport and other infrastructure badly affected by the quake it saw its visitor numbers fall sharply.

Even now, Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism reports the city has recovered just 46 per cent of international visitor numbers lost in the aftermath.

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On the plus side, total holiday arrivals in the year to November rose 10 percent on the year before, with the Australian market up 1 per cent and China up 52 per cent.

For the people of Christchurch, repairs to their homes are said by the Earthquake Commission to be 98 per cent complete – with 68,996 houses done – and a similar rate for the 167,357 properties with a building claim. Specific land damage claims lag behind, with just three quarters of the 80,000 plus cases being completed.

In the two years after the major earthquake, Canterbury's population fell by 12,000 people but had recovered those numbers by mid- 2014.

The rebuild and economic recovery program started with 20 priority projects, including improvements for tertiary education facilities, a government services hub and advanced broadband capabilities.

Christchurch's recovery is proving a case study internationally. Diplomatic delegations from more than 30 countries have been hosted by CERA since the February 2011 quake.

The work goes on. Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce CEO Peter Townsend told Radio New Zealand this month $100 million a week will continue to be spent in the city for years to come.

“I don't know anywhere in the world where $NZ40 billion to $NZ45 billion is being tipped into a population of 360,000 to rebuild a city," he said.

Tim Murphy is a journalist and former editor of the NZ Herald

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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